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Rebecca Solnit’s Dark Poem to San Francisco, in Maps [Slideshow]

If guide books ever bothered being honest, they’d look a lot like Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, Rebecca Solnit’s dark, cartographic poem to the Bay Area.

The book — a collection of maps and essays written by both Solnit and others — reads like an alternative field guide to a city known to outsiders primarily through postcards of the Golden Gate Bridge and the fever dreams of Republicans. Solnit’s Bay Area is eminently weirder (and more interesting). It’s the place where Eadweard Muybridge invented cinema and drag queens dress like nuns to raise money for AIDS and Jay Bybee, the architect of the torture memos, presides, on the Ninth Circuit of Appeals.

Infinite City throws these details together; one map sets the Bay Area’s foodie meccas against environmental disasters; another layers monarch butterfly habitats over gay haunts. As Solnit tells it, the apparent pointlessness is, well, the point: “[T]he intention [was] not of comprehensively describing the city but rather of suggesting through these pairings the countless further ways it could be described.”

Solnit has lived in San Francisco for 30 years and writes prolifically on places and the environment, a sort of Joan Didion with a walking stick. Her prose is a pleasure to read, even if the book is ultimately too provincial to capture the interest of non-Bay Area natives.

But as an exercise in creative mapping, Infinite City is a gem. (And we remain steadfast that it should be required reading for tourists, who might otherwise wander into the Stud bar thinking it’s a BBQ joint.) The maps — several of which we’ve got on view for you here — show that cartography can do more than chart places and visualize data; it can cut to a city’s very soul.

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